Richard Hamel remembers the feeling of shock when at the age of 58, the Toronto resident found out he had prostate cancer. “I wasn’t expecting to hear that I had prostate cancer,” he says. After his diagnosis, he met with an oncologist to talk about available treatments, and Richard ultimately decided to have surgery to remove his prostate.
Following prostate cancer surgery, 2 major side effects can be changes in bladder control and sexual function. Roughly 7 in 10 men will continue to experience erectile dysfunction 18 months after surgery, making it one of the biggest challenges facing men and their partners after prostate cancer treatment.
With a Quality of Life Research Grant from the Canadian Cancer Society (CCS), Dr Andrew Matthew studied a new intervention for prostate cancer survivors that combines medical, psychological and social strategies to improve sexual health, psychological wellbeing and quality of life.
“It’s not necessarily a very comfortable thing for a couple to go out and seek help for issues relating to sexual function,” says Cherie, Richard’s wife. “It’s really nice to have a place where you can go and talk about these things. The fact that it’s part of the routine care makes it much more accessible and comforting.”
This integrated approach, offered by Dr Matthew and a team of healthcare professionals through the Prostate Cancer Rehabilitation Clinic (PCRC) in Toronto, includes educating men about how to use medications and devices to enhance sexual function and counseling them to manage expectations and achieve more open communication and greater intimacy.
“Cancer has a stigma and sexual dysfunction has a stigma, so when you combine the two, the resulting stigma can be extremely challenging to overcome,” says Dr Matthew. “By integrating sexual health interventions into usual care, it becomes a normal part of the cancer treatment process, making it easier for patients to get the care they need and live a fuller life.”
After a successful surgery, Richard and Cherie began taking part in the rehabilitation program at the PCRC and continue to do so today.
“I think Dr Matthew’s research is very valuable because when you undergo a procedure like this that affects your life in a significant way, it’s really important to understand not only the physiological but also the psychological factors of the recovery,” says Richard. “Without research, and funders like CCS, my cancer experience would have been different.”
Drawing on the success of the PCRC and his CCS-funded research project, Dr Matthew has developed an online sexual health program for men with prostate cancer from across Canada. He is also using his expertise to create a rehabilitation program to address the sexual health challenges faced by men and women with other types of cancer. “We need to go beyond treating just the tumour and instead treat the person as a whole,” says Dr Matthew. Thanks to his research, more people with cancer will be able to have fulfilling relationships and a better quality of life.